Sniffing your coffee beans to check if they're stale ? I know the feeling. I'm especially sad whenever I walk past a coffee shop with the coffee bags in full view, opened and beautifully arranged. It smells odd, and the flavor is often gone when brewing coffee from those kind of bags.
Now let's see when are coffee beans bad, or stale, and if they ever do expire. And how to tell if they've gone or not.
So how long do coffee beans last ?
Freshly roasted coffee beans can 3-6 months, in an airtight container and away from heat and direct sunlight. Green (unroasted) coffee beans are good for up to 2 years, if kept in an airtight container, away from heat and direct sunlight. They still need to be roasted, after which they can last as long as any other roast coffee bean.
Roast coffee beans are best within 2-3 weeks of their roast date, after which they slowly lose their aroma. This depends heavily on the coffee type, brand, roasting degree, and your personal preference and what you consider as 'fresh' or 'stale'. Their caffeine levels stay the same, they never go away.
The very nature of how coffee works makes it a very volatile bean. This means it will lose its structure faster than most foods. It won't disintegrate, but it will be reduced to just a flavorless, bitter shell if left out in the open after roasting.
Coffee can and does go bad, as in moldy or gross, only if you've kept it in very poor conditions and for quite a long time.
Freshness is decided by you, in the end
This is kind of a touchy subject, because one person's stale coffee might be another person's good enough one. You see, there are some definite markers by which you can and should guide yourself.
But in the end it's your nose who decides whether something really is tasty or not. Your nose and mouth are connected, which also means that the taste of your food and drink will be influenced by what you're smelling.
All this means that your nose is much better at telling you whether something would taste good, than your actual tongue. The nose can differentiate between more notes.
So for example a bag of beans you've kept for 3 months (more on that later) might lose some aroma or flavor, but it will still be good. But if both of us were to smell the beans to figure if they were still good or not, we would probably have different answers.
You'll notice the coffee beans have gone stale when they lose pretty much all coffee aroma. They just smell bitter now. If you smell or see any mold or odd spots, throw them out.
They will however keep their caffeine, even if you've had them for several months.
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Oxidation and roasted on date are good markers of freshness
I said there are a few markers you an use to see if your coffee is still fresh. Well, you'll notice first by the roasted on date. All that is is the date the beans have been roasted on, and then sealed into their bag.
If you manage to get your hands on a fresh bag it will be good for up to 2-3 days after roasting. The aroma will start to degrade much faster after those weeks. However if you've got a an unopened bag that's been nitrogen flushed, the roasted on date is not relevant.
Nitrogen flushing removes the oxygen from the equation, and keeps the coffee beans on a sort of 'pause' button. The moment you open the bag for the first time, those 2-3 weeks start ticking.
Now, oxidation is something that is very hard to avoid. We are literally surrounded by air. But you can reduce the amount of exposure to air by keeping your beans in an airtight container, and keep it in a cool, dry place.
Still not very sure ? If you're willing to try a batch of coffee to see if it's still good, you can try grinding some beans for one cup. Grind them to whatever size you like for a filter coffee. Then, when you slowly pour the hot water over the filter with the coffee grounds in it, you should see some bubbles.
There should be a nice, thick foam on top, and some actual air bubble coming up and through the coffee grounds. If there is none of that happening, your coffee is unfortunately gone.
If there is some freshness to the coffee, you'll notice the foam and bubbles immediately. Actually, I think this video will show you everything you need to know about coffee basics, like freshness, roasting type, origin, brewing, and so on. It's a longer view, but I'll be damned if I didn't walk away wiser after watching it.
How you store your coffee beans matters
Alright, we know what the main markers of freshness are for coffee beans. But how to we keep them ? How do you keep your coffee beans fresh ?
Storage is important, and getting yourself a good storage container is crucial if you're going to keep coffee beans around. For the most part an airtight container will save you a lot of trouble, and preserve freshness.
What should be noted though is that oxygen and moisture are the main enemies here. So that means keeping your beans in a cool place is mandatory.
Not freezing them, since that will provide condensation once you take them out to thaw, which will then ruin your coffee because it kickstarts the brewing process even before you grind the beans.
For example a container like this one is going to go a long way. It holds a lot of beans and it's also adjustable. This is because it has an airtight seal and also a valve that will push out any extra air.
This means that the air your coffee is exposed to while in storage is minimal, and you personally decide how much air gets left in there. Seeing as storage is where coffee beans spend most of their time in, having a good container is crucial.
It's both airtight and opaque, so light will not affect the quality of the beans. And moisture will also be kept at bay on such conditions.
You can check the listing on Amazon here, and read the reviews as well.
How you store your coffee matters, since this is how you can guarantee the freshness it had when you first bought it. Coffee will break down in time, and its aroma will fade away. But keeping it in a good container will go a long way into making sure that process take 3 months instead of 3 weeks.
Regarding freezing coffee beans, this is not entirely bad. It's kind of the same problem as with freezing loose leaf tea, actually. You're sacrificing part of the aroma for a longer shelf life, and running into trouble when thawing them.
But whenever you take the bag out of the freezer, you expose it to air, and it's a warmer air at that. Which means small amounts of condensation, which will slowly brew the coffee.
You can get around this by freezing the beans in small portions, exactly as much as you would need for each cup. In that case the beans will last for months and still be alright, but you'll run into some problems when thawing them out.
The moisture on them will slowly brew them. You can try getting around this by grinding them when they're still frozen. But this will mean your grinder has some very solid coffee oil to grind through, plus the fact that they will warm up a bit during grinding. Which will again thaw them out and possibly mess with the grinder.
In all honesty I would advise against keeping any kind of flavorful ingredient in the freezer. Heavy spices and tea and coffee and essential oils aren't meant to be frozen, but kept in a cool, dark, dry place, in an airtight container.
When the coffee beans are bad or rancid
You'll notice your coffee beans are definitely off when they've not only lost all aroma, but also started to smell bad. Beyond just bitter and earthy, when they start developing a moldy, musty smell. Especially if the container you've kept them in seems to be moist on the inside, like if you can see droplets of condensation.
Detecting an especially sour smell it a sign your coffee's gone bad. This can be because the beans were exposed to moisture and have brewed in the meantime, or possibly they've gone rancid.
This is especially true for beans that were kept in a warm place, where the heat sped up the condensation process. Coffee beans can become rancid, because they do contain coffee oil.
Any oil can turn rancid, if allowed exposure to heat (room temp or more) and oxygen for long amounts of time. Or, if the bag or container was opened a long time ago and the oil had time to fully oxidize.
The best way to figure out if your coffee is still okay is to brew a cup of black coffee. Black coffee shows you the true taste of the coffee, unlike milk coffee which masks any extra bitterness or sugar to change things up. If it still tastes alright like that, then you're okay.
I hope I managed to help you out here, since I know stale coffee is a big issue for many people. Back in college I had ground coffee, which I kept in a cardboard/plastic container. Lots of air was in that container, and ground coffee is always going to be less fresh than coffee beans ground on the spot.
Still, I drank stale coffee for a long few months before I figured out something was wrong. I know it was ground coffee, but this can happen with beans as well.
So make sure you keep yours in a good container, and please don't freeze your coffee beans, okay ? Remember to loo for the roasted on date on the bag. If it's too far gone, like a year ago for example, you should probably just look for another bag. Not all bags are nitrogen flushed, so they might've gone stale in the meantime.
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